Camp Darapanan: The largest Muslim guerrilla group in the Philippines hopes to conclude a peace deal with the government within a year despite the emergence of a breakaway faction that could put talks at risk.
The 11,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been fighting for Muslim self-determination in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country. The conflict has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource rich area.
"If the government shows its sincerity and the President displays a political will to resolve this problem, we are very confident a peace agreement can be reached in one year," rebel leader Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim told reporters.
Murad held a news conference at the end of two weeks of consultations with Muslim political, religious, military and civil society leaders in a guerrilla base on the southern island of Mindanao.
"I am optimistic that in a short time, we can come out with the proper political formula from the negotiating table. We have the beginning of a just peace in the Bangsamoro homeland in our time and generation," he said, using the Muslims` name for their region.
During the consultations, Murad said they learned that many of their supporters were getting impatient over delays in the peace talks and some field commanders were urging them to abandon the talks and resume fighting.
Neighbouring, Muslim-majority Malaysia has brokered the talks since 2001.
Two months ago, a small breakaway MILF faction called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, emerged and rejected the talks, bemoaning "an endless peace process and a perpetual ceasefire situation”.
Murad said the faction was a "manageable problem”.
"It will not have any affect the peace talks," he said.
"We wanted to give peace another chance, we`ve been in this process for 14 years and we don`t want to waste the gains made," he said.
Murad said MILF leaders were able to convince a majority of their members that the peace negotiations remain the "most viable and practical solution to the Mindanao problem”.
He said the two sides were on the final stretch of peace negotiations, focusing on political, economic and social reforms that would allow self-rule for minority Muslims in their ancestral homeland.
"Our position is very consistent, we are demanding that our right to self-determination be recognised and respected," said the 62-year-old rebel leader who studied engineering at the Catholic Norte Dame University in Cotabato City in the 1960s.
Clad in his signature bush jacket and fez, Murad said his group was united and any agreement would be abided by.
"We assure you that whatever agreement that would be reached will be followed and implemented by our forces," he said.
Formal talks resume in Kuala Lumpur next week.